The Mobile Age - Part One: Modernism

The contemporary citizen is mobile in new ways, re-shaping our definitions of “home” and challenging our conventions about “community”. In three essays over the coming months, Timothy Taylor examines the evolution of human mobility in the West in three phases: Modernism, Globalism, and the dawning age of Post-Globalism.
There is a slightly embarrassing story my mother used to like to tell about me. It dates from 1965 when I was not yet two. That was the year my nomadic family moved back to Canada after years abroad to settle in West Vancouver. We’d lived in Venezuela prior to that point, where I’d been born in the town of San Tome, the last of five kids. Oil brats, as they used to say, since my father was an engineer with the Mene Grande Oil Company.
The move from South America had been a challenge for my parents. Five kids from 1 to 8 years of age, 13 pieces of luggage. We’d had long stopovers in Washington and Toronto. My mother had given my two eldest brothers a sedative, the sixties-era best wisdom on how to travel with feisty boys. The drugs had kicked in to completely opposite effect turning them into town drunks. 20 hours in planes with a 5 and 7 year old wandering up and down the aisles singing Johnny Appleseed or whatever it was. And even arriving in Vancouver, the move wasn’t over. We first stayed in a motel under the Lions Gate Bridge, then in rented digs in Burnaby where everyone but my father came down with the mumps.
All told, it was 217 days later that the family Volkswagen Bug finally pulled into the driveway of our new house on Madrona Crescent in West Vancouver and we all piled out to the amusement of curious neighbors. Tucking us all into our beds and cribs that night, I can only imagine how fatigued my parents must have been, how intensely, existentially relieved they must have felt to finally have a permanent roof over their heads and a bed waiting for them at the end of the hallway.
However they felt, I apparently didn’t. Because that night, having kept my peace throughout the long move, I started wailing. And I kept wailing. All night. And the next night. And the next night. I took breaks during the day, but otherwise kept it up for a week, sitting on the end of my parents’ bed. The eighth night I stopped wailing and fell asleep, my point apparently made.
I was reminded of this incident recently, reading an article by Harvard English Professor Stephen J. Greenblatt. In the piece, Greenblatt suggests a worthwhile new area of inter-disciplinary study might be “mobility studies”, which would examine the “restless and often unpredictable movements” of people in our mobile age. Greenblatt argues, among other things, that while we typically assume culture to be something dependent on a group of rooted citizens – an identifiable “people” living in a defined, stationary “home” – perhaps the truth is different. Perhaps culture is something shaped in a more fluid environment entirely.
In the context of history and pre-history, this point certainly seems a reasonable one. When homo erectus ambled out of Africa into Eurasia about a million years ago, an inextinguishable human trait was foreshadowed. We drift around. We follow our impulses, urgent and whimsical as they may be. In North America, where European migrations began only in the late fifteenth century, this phenomenon may have played out to the fullest degree. But the patterns of human movement are literally the patterns of human history. We journey as a matter of genetic imperative, ending up in different places as different people than where and when we began.
That the pace of all this to-ing and fro-ing has risen dramatically since Industrialization is equally clear. Population migrations have shaped the developed world over the same period of time that technology – in transportation and communications – has radically reduced the barriers to such movement. We now mingle in obvious and subtle ways. You might ask yourself – reading this article on your way by air to or from some destination – how you contribute to a complicated web of cultural forces. Whether you’re a tourist, business person, student, artist or a person visiting a relative who lives far enough away that you must fly, the things you leave behind as you travel – your dollars, your opinions, tastes and ideas – change the places you visit just as you are changed by the things you carry home, including the very idea of what home itself should be. Every seat on your flight today, meanwhile, is occupied by somebody contributing to this effect in a different way and Greenblatt’s “mobility studies” probably have merit for reasons of that complexity alone.
For me, however, it’s personal history that opens a view into this topic. My parents came together as a product of mobility, both having traveled long routes to their unlikely meeting place in Guayaquil, Ecuador. Very different routes too. My mother was a half-Jewish German who’d spent much of the Second World War in hiding and whose family had reunited post-war in Ecuador where her Jewish father had been waiting for them since getting a single exit visa in 1940. My father, by contrast, was an engineering grad from the U of T, bored with the imprisoning provinciality of 1940’s Toronto, out seeking his fortune. They met on August 22, 1953, but had both already been in motion for years. My mother, traveling against her will throughout Germany and then to South America post-war. My father, responding to his own whims and desires, had seen Manila, the Philippine jungle, Hong Kong, Paris, New York and Caracas by that point.
What their experience leads me to believe about mobility studies is that the link between culture and movement isn’t much illuminated by considering only the amount we travel. You’re reading this article aboard a busy flight, some way between two even busier terminal buildings. So too my parents, post-war, were merely two of an estimated 20 million individuals thought to be to be in transition from a former home to a new one. What has to be considered instead – and what could teach us something about how mobility has affected our ideas of home and community, and how these effects are evolving over time – is the degree of our mobility measured against the degree to which that mobility is voluntary.
That approach breaks the universe of mobility experience into four archetypes as follows:
Nomads wander by choice, while the refugee is cast adrift in the world. Settlers happily put down roots, while prisoners (of the law or of circumstance) are restrained unwillingly. Treated as distinct ways that mobility may be experienced, these archetypes characterize the world in which my mother and father were traveling. But the tensions between the quadrants, the yearning of one type to become another, were also critical in defining that “modern” era of mobility. I can illustrate this idea with two events from my parents’ respective journeys. I play them simultaneously in memory, since they both happened in 1948 although on directly opposite sides of the globe. (10,629 miles apart, to be precise, which is about 43% of the circumference of the earth.)
In the first, my mother (with her mother and sister) is about to be reunited with her father in Guayaquil after eight years of living through bombing raids, persecution and hiding, and finally as a post-war refugee. After delays in Paris and Genoa, she’s finally completed the Atlantic crossing, during which she sat on a coiled rope on the after deck and watched her European life evaporate with the foam of the wake. She’s seen Caracas and Curacao, felt her first tropical nights, the air rich and velvety on the skin. And now she stands at the rail of the aptly named Marco Polo, staring up the hillside of this unknown city, this unknown continent, this unknown personal future. She has just glimpsed her father bobbing towards them in the launch, and as the birds rise over the Isla Puna she asks herself: what will become of me here?
Meanwhile, in the South China Sea, my father is aboard his own ship, a naval surplus minesweeper he’s purchased at Subic Bay for sale to a Hong Kong businessman he’s agreed to meet in Manila. The short trip south, however, has been a problem from the start. They nearly lost the ship in a typhoon at anchor. Leaving Subic they’d been stopped by Coast Guard looking for exit papers which they didn’t have (my dad presented a gas receipt, which seemed to do the trick). They’d had tiller and engine problems en route putting them into Manila much later than expected, the light failing. Entering the top of the harbor – slipping in past the Bataan Peninsula, where 75,000 Filipino and American soldiers had surrendered to the Japanese just six years before – they find a harbor full of dangerous, sunken wreckage. And so my father’s voyage ends with him also at the ship’s rail, staring into the dark waters, watching the masts and superstructures of sunken ships below, calling back instructions to his friend at the wheel: starboard, port, OK forward. Stop! Slowly creeping through.
Times of nervous anticipation for both parties, naturally. But what these meshed stories illustrate, to my mind, are the tensions and yearnings at work between those modern mobility archetypes. The prisoner of Nazi Germany, freed to become a refugee, now contemplates settlement as a matter of core disposition. Likewise, the former prisoner of a provincial birth place fights his way over any challenge to his continued freedom, ever conscious that a new home might be unexpectedly found in the process. These are mirroring forces, which may be shown on our four quadrant diagram as follows:
But these are also the internal tensions I now understand to have driven the events of my life as it has followed. The movement of my parents towards one another, towards Ecuador and then Venezuela and then five kids and that final, long and arduous trip to Vancouver that ends with me crying at the foot of their bed saying, in effect, enough is enough. No more nomad, no more refugee. I want to be a settler!
Telling sentiments from the two year old version of myself, because I remain a settler to this day, even returning to Vancouver after my family had all moved to Alberta. And although I do not live what appears to be a settled life – all but my immediate family is dispersed, my work is scattered all over, taking me to Toronto, Costa Rica and Shanghai in the past few months – I now also understand this to be a product of the diagram above. Because those tensions, those tendencies and yearnings that defined the modern era of mobility, have also pushed us onward to further necessary distortions of the four basic archetypes. I’ll be exploring these in two coming articles, the evolution represented by my own globalized era, and the evolution I anticipate for the post-globalized era to be inherited by my own three year old son.
But I won’t close before offering a final image from the modern era behind us. From my father’s life, naturally enough. He’d become a settled Albertan after moving there in his early fifties. And that was what he remained until only very recently when, having lost my mother early last year, a telling transformation has taken place. He announced he wanted to buy a second home in Vancouver, so he could visit and go for walks. Then he shifted focus to Victoria. Then, a couple weeks back, he shifted focus again. He’s thinking about a camper van now. “I could drive around,” he explained to me. “I could stop here and there. See a lot of different places.”
Which was an idea to which I might have reasonably objected, given he’s 84 years old. But I didn’t say anything. I suddenly understood that this impulse had everything to do with mobility. Specifically, that the true site of his settlement hadn’t been a place at all, but a person, a 52 year marriage. And without my mother, my father had in some ways been returned to a previous ordering of things in life, some element of himself necessarily re-mobilized, certain impulses of the modern nomad reawakened.
Posted: Tuesday, Jun. 5, 2007 9:00pm